Another amazing opportunity to do some research with real-world implications in my science classes recently—differentiating stem cells!
In my cell physiology lab we had the opportunity to take mesenchymal stem cells that were on their way to becoming a certain sort of tissue cell, but by altering their environment we were able to make them form into (that is, to “differentiate”) into a different sort of tissue cell. These stem cells are, of course, adult stem cells, not fetal or embryonic, which involve the destruction of that tiny human person.
But under the right conditions, we can push these adult stem cells to become many different types of cells—muscle, cartilage, fat, bone, or even tendon/ligament cells. This type of scientific experimentation is incredible, really, because of the many new lines of potential therapies it opens to us in the fast-growing field of “regenerative medicine.”
So how’d we change the developmental direction of these cells? Well, just like us, cells respond to their environment. When we get cold, we tend to shiver; when we get hot, we tend to sweat. We did some research and discovered that if we expose the cells to a certain amount of specific chemicals, they’ll start to change into fat cells. Specifically, we exposed them to differentiation media that had isobutylmethylxanthine, indomethacin, insulin, and dexamethasone. Let’s call the last one “dex”.
Through some research, we found out that dex has a pretty significant influence on taking undifferentiated cells and pushing them down a cell line called adipocytes, or fat cells. We hypothesized that cells exposed to dex will turn into fat cells, and that cells that aren’t exposed will not.
We ran an experiment on two cultures of cells—a group of cells that had all four of those chemicals and an experiment that had all of them except dex. Well, our results came in and it seems that we were right! The cells (which can be seen in the image above) have characteristics that are expected of fat cells—not only do they look like fat cells, they have increased gene expression of PPARG—a gene that is typically found in fat cells. The other cells, well, we’re not sure at this point what they differentiated into. We just know that they’re probably not fat cells! We may run some tests to figure that out.
A lot more could be said about what we did, but I think you get the picture: we’re doing some exciting research that will prepare us to make an impact on the medical world. Oh, and one last note: I spoke with my twin brother who is also studying biology at a different, rather prestigious university, and he was floored that we had this opportunity to work with stem cells like this. He wished that he could have done it as well. God is good!